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Extreme Vanity

Dr Silvia Hartmann

I've always been fascinated with the concept of vanity publishing, ever since I wrote my first book way back in 1987 and became the proud owner of a full collection of antique rejection slips - the real thing, a thin slip of paper cut from a sheet produced on a ditto machine with one line or two, reading, "Not interested" in variations.

Back then, I didn't really understand why it would be deemed to be vanity if you paid to publish a book yourself which you knew had an audience and was much needed - the book in question was "Your Dog and Your Baby - A Practical Guide".

I was working as an animal behaviour counsellor at the time and this was a hot topic amongst dog owners. Many young couples get a dog first, then they get pregnant, and there was no good advice on what to do, how to prepare the dog for the arrival of the baby, hygiene guidance, how to prevent jealousy and so forth.

Suffice to say, we published the book - in those days, this involved taking out a second mortgage on the house! - and the first printing sold out within the year. The book has been selling ever since then, is still on sale today, and is still helping people on that particular and often emotional topic.

I will be honest and admit that after this project, I had broken a threshold which could never be repaired; I gave up on trying to get publishing deals and published everything I wrote myself from that day forth.

I made a good living from writing How To manuals on many different topics. Eventually, an entire publishing company grew around my endeavours, as is so often the case, and the more the publishing company grew, the more books I sold. The more books I sold, the more standard publishing deals came in, for translations of my books into other languages and the republishing rights for special editions.

After many years of writing How To books there came the day I knew that the time had come for my own "Lord of the Rings" and in 2000, I took two years out of my busy schedule to write a trilogy of fantasy novels called "In Serein".

It never occurred to me for one moment to seek an outside publisher, and the freedom and joy this gave to my writing, being able to write exactly what I wanted to write about, and exactly how I wanted to write it, without having to look over my shoulder and worry about what an editor might make of it, was joyous.

Writing this trilogy was my best creative endeavour to this day. It was an exploration, it was an experiment, it was me doing my thing as a writing artist - ho holds barred.

It was awesome and I loved it.

As my bills were being paid by the publishing company and the many How To manuals and trainings I had written, I wasn't worried about publishing In Serein or needing it to be on every bookshelf in the country. So we published it but beyond that, we didn't do anything with it and the three books that make up the trilogy just sat in the catalogue, for the hard core fans, and that was fine by me.

And so it came to pass that this year my 50th birthday arrived, and when asked what I wanted for a present, I said I wanted one single copy of the entire In Serein trilogy - all 3 books, 30 parts, 240 chapters, 500,000 words! - in a huge big black leather bound old fashioned book with gold leaf, printed on marbled parchment with gilded edges.

I said it as a joke, but my good friends and family went ahead and found a fine art printer and binder who specialises in such one off creations, obtained a quote for the project, and set the whole thing in motion.

The cost of producing this single book is £500.

This includes the paper, the leather for the binding, the printing and the gold leaf blocking on the covers.

What it doesn't include is my time spent editing the whole thing, personally, by hand, to create the final PDF the printer will be using.

So here I am, now totally responsible for this book. I am responsible not just for the flowery prose, the progression of events and the messages, but also for the choice of lettering and fonts, where every single chapter starts and ends, for all orphans and widows and every comma, every space, every letter and every full stop.

At first, I thought it was a little tedious but as time went by, I was more and more amused by it all.

Truly, this is as close as one might get these days to sitting in a monk's cell and hand lettering the whole thing with ink on parchment, and then carefully stitching the individual pages together at the end!

I was given samples to choose the leather for the binding. At first, I couldn't tell the difference. The leathers looked the same, smelled the same, even felt the same. Then it occurred to me to try and tear the samples, and there was the difference and the reason why some leather would cost £80, and some over £300. The cheap leather ripped like cardboard. It would never last or be able to handle being wiped down after a spillage, or dropped accidentally.

The same held true for the paper of which there were many choices. In the end I went with a champagne coloured, heavy weight Vellum that resisted the tearing test better than the cheap leather had.

So this is extreme vanity publishing.

It is arrogant. It is expensive. It is time consuming. It is scary. It is wonderful, freeing, exciting and so much fun - a thoroughly amazing experience of true dominion as a writer and an artist to create an object that is unique, and at least to me, absolutely priceless.

I have just handed over the massive PDF files to the printer. I'm committed now, whatever is in that file will go into the book.

I can't wait to see the finished product, to hold the book in my hands, on my lap more like because that's going to be A4 size, and a thousand pages thick.

This book is absolutely a statement - and a gift to me, by me.

It has been said that if you push a vice hard enough, it will turn into a virtue.

I'm not sure if this applies to my case of extreme vanity publishing, but if you are any kind of writer, I'm sure you can sit back and imagine what YOU would feel like if that was your novel, if that was your book - a single leather bound copy in all the world, completely yours, in every way.

The fact is that unique hand bound books or super low run editions are expensive but entirely affordable, and they make a wonderful gift for yourself or an author friend for those extra special occasions. If you are a well known author, such unusual and rare books can even become potentially extremely valuable collector's items you can leave to your descendents.

I do know that authors have to live in the real world and that involves constant compromise in what you do and how you do it. But perhaps there is a project in your heart, something that would "never sell," something that you know you would never find a publisher for, something highly experimental, or something that is so personal and precious to you that you want to keep out of the hands of publishers and editors altogether, like my dear In Serein.

Allow yourself the luxury and consider your own extreme vanity project. It is truly wonderful to set the magical author within free to "do what thou wilt".

I have spent decades writing for money, for markets, for readers, for various purposes, for the benefit of other people.

This book is for me.

Uncompromising, incontrovertible, unconditionally so.

And it seems to me that there is a level of coming of age involved with my extreme vanity project, as an author, as an artist, as a free human being who was given a voice, and a pen.

Dr Silvia Hartmann

August 2009

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